For better, or possibly worse, texting is perhaps the central way that people keep in touch with their partners (both would-be and actual). It’s especially the case for the younger set: Some 42 percent of young adults have used texting to “to communicate sexual intent,” as researchers have clinically put it, while a little under a third of teens report having broken up with someone via text message. And as new research in the journal Computers in Human Behavior has found, the way you text—and how you feel about how your partner texts—has huge implications for how satisfied you are with your relationship.
Psychologist Leora Trub, PhD, who leads Pace University’s Digital Media and Psychology Lab, and her team recruited 205 young Americans to participate in an online survey. (The lead author was Jonathan O’Hadi, a recent graduate from Pace who recruited the participants.) All of them were between 18 and 29 years old, and about three quarters of them were women. All of them were in relationships: 83 percent were dating exclusively, 11 percent were married and 13 percent were dating openly.
The respondents took standard surveys measuring attachment style, or how much they tend to crave or fear intimacy, and relationship satisfaction. They also took a new assessment developed for the study about the perceived similarity between one’s own and one’s partner’s texting habits. They rated how frequently they initiated text conversations, and also the emotional quality of their texts—whether to express affection, to just say hey, to bring up an issue that’s hard to do in person, and the like. In each case, participants evaluated their own habits and also answered on their partner’s behalf.
Overall, the greater the perceived similarity between partners’ texting habits, the higher their relationship satisfaction. Not all of the individual variables were important, but having symmetry around the frequency of starting text conversations and the amount to which you text to “just say hey” were both particularly predictive of satisfaction. If you’ve felt anxiety over someone not texting you back—or messaging you too much—then you’re not alone. In texting, as in life, balance and compatibility are key.
The immediate benefit of this is study is making all of us feel less absurd about being sensitive to our romantic partners’ texting habits. Consider Aziz Ansari’s character Dev Shah from Master of None, who perfectly portrays millennials’ torturous relationship with texting in relationships.
Beyond the anxiety relief, this study also brings a lot of offline research about what makes relationships work into smartphone-land. It’s been known for a long time that when both partners have emotional intelligence, they have happier relationships. Ditto if they both value emotionally laden communication like comforting each other, conflict management and generally helping people feel good about themselves, and if they’re into expressing affection for one another, a study result that’s been found again and again. It’s right there in the title of an earlier Communication Quarterly paper on the topic: “Similarity makes for attraction (and happiness, too).”
Furthering this work will require getting both members of a couple involved, Trub and her colleagues say, especially for doing in-lab experiments. Still, the researchers contend that there are immediate applications for therapists and anyone trying to navigate the many thickets of electronic romance. For example, mindfulness interventions have been shown to get people to edit their texts more and drunk-text less.
Maybe most meaningfully, the research helps reveal that texting isn’t something frivolous and inconsequential, but rather a big part of the day-to-day rhythm of being with someone. That’s means it’s worth articulating to yourself—and your partner—what messaging means to you.